Luddites on the Internet?


There are a significant number of people who receive the vast bulk of their information from the internet—accessed with computer or smartphone. Indeed, such information outlets often crowd out other channels of information. This means that if people are to come across a critique of technology it will likely come to them by means of a technology that is within the scope of the critique. If it is a contemporary critique, the person reading it may dismiss the author as a hypocrite for employing a technology that he or she has expressed concerns about.

By sealing themselves into the virtual, many have created a scenario where they can divide people neatly into allies or hypocrites. There is seemingly no room for legitimate criticism because simply by entering the space one has purportedly discredited themselves and is not to be taken seriously.

But critics of technology, if they are to reach those who do not already share their views need to get their message into the virtual so that such critiques can be found by people who almost exclusively get their information there. It is a genuine dilemma for critics of technology and there is seemingly no perfect way to resolve it but to dismiss such critics as hypocrites because their arguments are not delivered exclusively via stone tablets, cave paintings, scrolls of parchment, or orally is unwarranted and disingenuous. It is, more often than not, a glib way to refuse to engage with critics rather than to substantively answer their charges.

To exacerbate the situation, critics of technology are confronted with a wide range of circumstances beyond their control. Indeed, it is very often the perceived lack of meaningful options that fuels the harshest criticism; the idea is that technologies are initially introduced as products that consumers may freely use or ignore but very quickly become almost obligatory. James Howard Kunstler has characterized a driver’s license as being almost a requisite for full citizenship that is to say that it has become essential to fully participate in society (but perhaps that is waning). In a very strict sense one has the freedom to refuse to drive a car but it is not a free choice because of the penalty imposed for declining. This is how many technologies become so invasive; tracing a trajectory from voluntary to obligatory.

Additional examples could be piled to the sky. Not having a Facebook page is now sufficient to be characterized as “suspicious” behavior; columnists at Slate have suggested that “if you are going out with someone and they don’t have a Facebook profile, you should be suspicious.” Not having a Facebook page should be a “red flag”. There have been reports that lacking a Facebook page is also a red flag for employers and thus may compromise one’s search for employment.

And that is simply Facebook. Consider the social cost for forgoing email or the internet altogether. Again, people can and do make such decisions but it is at a great social cost. It could potentially be argued that critics of technology should bear those costs for the sake of their values but that argument needs to be made rather than assumed. Abstaining creates a chasm between such critics and the people they are trying to reach and thus may actually be counterproductive. Abstaining from a particular technology is a strategy but it is one strategy amongst many, it need not be the default position. In many cases, the freedom to abstain is itself a privilege that is not equally available.

Finally, critics of technology are generally not born with such a worldview. It’s a minority viewpoint that many people may not arrive at until well into adult life. Their upbringing and formal education has made them dependent on an environment permeated with technological apparatus. To use myself as an example, I may be able to write a fairly witty letter to the editor, a decent blog post, and use email but I struggle to grow food, recognize the plants and animals who live alongside me, or build anything more complex than a paper airplane (assuming that I am provided with the paper and a flat surface). Simon Fairlie explains similar circumstances in his excellent article “Growing Up Dystechnic”:

Throughout my childhood I lived under the uneasy suspicion that in order to maintain the English class system, I was being deprived of contact with the more robust aspects of the material world, and on leaving school I realized that my suspicions were entirely correct. I was utterly ill-equipped to do anything except write academic essays and bowl leg-breaks; the only thing I was qualified to do was to sink back into the academic system from which I had only just emerged.

I am struggling to learn skills that in a different time and place would have been mastered as a child, skills that now must be learned in a discursive manner, often from books, and with the clunky brain of an adult rather than breathed in with the air of childhood.

It is absurd to suggest someone is a hypocrite because their options are severely constrained and what they have to choose from is contrary to their values or desires.

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